In Practice: Building a Better School Brand

Summer 2022

By Christopher Kramaric

kramaric.JPGThis article appeared as “Missing Piece” in the Summer 2022 issue of Independent School.
Over the past 45 years, the market for independent schools in and around Philadelphia has shifted in dramatic ways. Traditional private schools have expanded programs to welcome students who learn differently, while a cohort of exceptional schools for students with learning differences have opened their doors across the metropolitan region.

Since its founding in 1976, Woodlynde School (PA) has been reaching and teaching students with language- or math-based learning differences, executive function challenges, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and auditory processing disorders. But by the late 2010s, Woodlynde, now in a crowded and increasingly competitive marketplace, found itself facing an enrollment decline and increased attrition.  
In surveys, prospective families who had chosen other schools revealed that they had questions about what set Woodlynde apart. In the same surveys, even some legal and medical professionals who refer students to us raised questions about who we existed to serve. We knew who we were, but we were clearly coming up short in sharing that message.

It would have been easy to think that Woodlynde just had a marketing problem. We tended to lead with our purpose—often by describing the type of learning differences with which we work—and then follow up with a list of facts, figures, and features. But why should a family choose Woodlynde and remain loyal in the long term? There wasn’t any emotionality or connection to a bigger picture or that differentiating value created by—and only by—Woodlynde. What was missing was our brand.

The Approach

When I joined the school as director of external affairs during the height of the pandemic, the need to position the brand was evident to me, as well as to Amy L. Clemons, head of school, and Sarah Houston, board chair. Surveys, an enrollment that refused to budge, and stubborn attrition rates suggested as much, but Woodlynde was also lacking a clear visual identity and go-to language exceeding the purely descriptive.
Early on in my tenure, we made the decision to move away from a bifurcated development-marketing model toward a more integrated external affairs approach in which a single team would build relationships with all the school’s constituencies. Fundraising, marketing and communications, community engagement, and—soon enough—enrollment would need to funnel through a single point if we wanted to craft a brand positioning statement that would inform our advertising and marketing as well as our institutional and donor communications.
Without the budget to hire outside consultants, we tapped into the network of independent schools to gather information and insights. Among the many resources we gathered, a blog series from NAIS’s Independent Ideas by Maria Kadison was especially helpful. The ideas and insights Kadison, CEO of EdwardsCo., shared provided a foundation and guidance for our process. Our core team—a group of administrators that included our head of school, the lower school head, and the directors of enrollment management and college guidance, and myself—began to chart a course through the listening, distilling, and producing processes that would go into defining our brand.

Kadison’s contrast between an internally focused mission statement and an externally focused brand resonated with us. Woodlynde’s mission was front and center, but a brand describing our “primary and differentiating value in terms of how it addresses the educational and emotional needs of target prospective families” was not. We pulled together a working group of colleagues, trustees, past and current parents, and alumni, and set agendas for three meetings. Over a three-month period, this group, which we called the brand strategy team, responded to prompts about their Woodlynde experience and that of their students, reacted to drafts of brand positioning statements, and finessed concepts and language that would soon prove essential.

The Process

In our first meeting, we adopted the perspective that we needed to craft a brand positioning statement that spoke to the “window shoppers of world.” As Kadison put it: What do “families need to see in the window to spur them to knock on your door”? We needed to paint a clear and compelling picture for families who might not even yet know that they need us while continuing to speak to those who had been coming to us for years. We divided the brand strategy team into groups based on their constituency, and members of the core team asked them to respond to three questions drawn from Kadison’s articles:
  • What will an education at Woodlynde School mean for your child and their development and achievement?
  • What advantages will an education at Woodlynde School offer your child versus other options?
  • How will an education at Woodlynde School help your child reach their greatest potential?
Constituents strayed from their immediate answer and shared personal anecdotes and impressions. When reflecting on the conversations later, members of the core team realized that many of our current and past parent constituents shared before-and-after stories in responding to our questions, revealing important insights that would ultimately help shape our thinking. We heard about students who, until Woodlynde, refused to get out of the car in the morning. One parent put it succinctly: “When we found Woodlynde, the crying stopped.” Hope may not be a strategy, but it was quickly emerging as a selling point.
With detailed notes from this meeting, our core group of administrators took to coding the language to identify emerging themes, which centered on community (“belonging,” “family,” “acceptance”), confidence (“future,” “possibilities,” “potential”), and content (“Wilson Reading System®,” “literacy,” “self-advocacy,” “college prep”). With these themes front of mind, we meticulously drafted sample brand positioning statements. Each took a different starting point—our students, our environment, or our values—but played with the language in which we expressed sentiments related to the themes. The brand strategy team reviewed these statements and completed a survey designed to help them evaluate the statements independently before our next meeting.
Team members ranked the three statements from most to least resonant. Then we asked them to choose the most and least resonant sentiment within each statement and the most and least resonant across all statements. By assigning values to their responses, we were able to create heat maps. We could see in bright reds and deep greens exactly which phrases best reflected the Woodlynde experience. Reacting to these findings—the use of the word “family,” for example, was disliked almost as much as the use of the phrase “sense of belonging” was endorsed—took up the bulk of our second meeting.
Ahead of our final meeting, the core team prepared a draft brand positioning statement and a revised set of core values. We took both to the brand strategy team for reaction in mixed-constituent and whole-group settings. After some additional finessing, we landed on what’s become our brand positioning statement:
Woodlynde School gives hope to families that know that one size doesn’t fit all. Embraced by peers, teachers, and learning specialists in small-group settings, your student will develop the strategies, skills, and sense of self they need to grow in confidence on their deeply individual journey as a learner. Students at Woodlynde discover who they are, how they learn, and what they can achieve, transforming school—and the future that awaits—into something that empowers and excites.

The Takeaways

Here are a few things we’ve learned as we repositioned our school’s brand.
Don’t be overly specific. If the goal is to attract the “window shoppers,” then it’s important to remember—especially at a school for students with learning differences—that many future families may not yet know they need a school like Woodlynde. Or they might know that their student has a learning difference without knowing the specifics of their diagnosis or the ideal educational solution. In our advertising and marketing, we have started leaning into the seemingly universal experience of our families: a sense of helplessness that turns into a sense of hope when they find Woodlynde. Yes, hope has become our strategy.
Make your brand work for you. Last year, by chance, Woodlynde’s leadership team was also holding colleague workshops in an effort to define our core values. When it became clear that there were significant overlaps between what was bubbling to the surface with the brand strategy team and what our colleagues had been discussing in those workshops, we moved to create a set of core values innately aligned with our brand. Now, the brand positioning statement and those core values—instilling hope, fostering belonging, cultivating confidence, and nourishing growth—are the barometer by which we source, craft, and curate stories from across campus for use in everything from social media posts to donor newsletters.
Structure should support strategy. Centralizing forward-facing activities is critical to coherence. Moving away from inherited structures and titles—as we were concurrently reorganizing offices to be able to deliver on the branding work—we prioritized building out competencies at all levels of a single department united by a common goal. We landed on four core strengths—communication, design, operations, and engagement—to create a team that could proactively connect with constituents across multiple channels and media no matter where they were in their lifecycle. This summer, enrollment will move into the external affairs department, bringing the final—and, perhaps, most vital—part of the constituent lifecycle under a single umbrella. Now, whether someone hears about Woodlynde through a radio ad, a panel at open house, a parent-community association meeting, a social media post, or an annual fund letter, that person is encountering a unified message.
Embrace the cycle. There is more than just one beginning when it comes to rebranding a school. We started where we could have the most impact and earn the biggest return. That meant not only overhauling our advertising and marketing materials for the school and our summer programs but also reworking our approach to parent newsletters, engagement events, and fundraising materials. Our website, however, still needs a complete overhaul. Nevertheless, we have focused on a few projects at a time and noted what has worked and what has not, confident in the fact that the rhythm of the school year will soon enough deliver a fresh opportunity to try something new or tweak something we are still trying to perfect. Even using this piecemeal implementation, we have found that attrition is down, and enrollment is up.
Christopher Kramaric

Christopher Kramaric is assistant head of school for external affairs at Woodlynde School in Strafford, Pennsylvania.